Living in a Storied Neighborhood: A conversation with Ted Goossen about his translation of Hiromi Kawakami’s <i>People from My Neighborhood</i> Living in a Storied Neighborhood: A conversation with Ted Goossen about his translation of Hiromi Kawakami’s <i>People from My Neighborhood</i>

Living in a Storied Neighborhood: A conversation with Ted Goossen about his translation of Hiromi Kawakami’s People from My Neighborhood

Hiromi Kawakami is an author known for her incredible range, from realism to speculative fiction. Her first novel to be published in English was Michael Emmerich’s 2010 translation of Manazuru. Since then, Kawakami has been translated into English by no fewer than half a dozen translators. Strange Weather in Tokyo, translated by Allison Markin Powell, was a critical and commercial success, and Record of a Night Too Brief, translated by Lucy North, was also received warmly by Kawakami fans. Ted Goossen’s translation of People from My Neighborhood, a collection of vignettes mostly first published in the literary magazine Monkey Business, came out in 2020 to critical acclaim.

David Boyd & David Karashima: You’ve been translating the stories that make up this volume over a period of years. What has it been like to live with a project like this? When you come back to it, how does it feel to re-enter “the neighborhood”?

Ted Goossen: I started translating Hiromi Kawakami’s People from My Neighborhood more than ten years ago for the annual literary magazine Monkey Business, now just Monkey, which I coedit with Motoyuki Shibata and Meg Taylor. Amazingly, we are still at it – right now we are working on Issue Nine. In almost every issue are at least two stories from this ongoing series, which has continued even after the book came out. In other words, there may be a Volume Two on the horizon!

I have been asked why I rendered the ‘kono atari” in the title as “neighborhood.” I think it’s because, for many of us at least, there is something familiar about its cast of characters. There was a lot of crazy stuff going on, but at the same time it felt like a real neighborhood, I guess, so that’s the word I chose.

Now after more than a decade of ‘visiting the neighborhood,’ I feel like I kind of belong. Indeed, I “return” there each year when I translate her most recent stories. Sometimes, it’s like meeting old friends to catch up on the new gossip; at other times its something totally unexpected. It’s fun to read and to translate, and my feeling is that Kawakami is having fun writing it too. I sure hope she keeps it up!

DB & DK: Does each story have its own “voice”? Is there one voice that runs through them? Did you have any other works in mind as you translated the stories?

TG: Kawakami has a distinctive style, that can change from work to work. People is written in a deceptively simple way. In fact, it’s that style that gives the stories their special power. As for models, I didn’t have any specific English text in mind, but one is certainly relevant: E.B. White’s classic children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web. For the last year, I have been living with my two-and-a-half-year-old grandson. He loves being read to, so I have revisited many of the books of my own childhood. E.B. White was an editor at the New Yorker, the “guardian” of American literary style, and in fact Charlotte’s Web is beautifully written. The writing flows smoothly, without any excess ornamentation, in a style that never calls attention to itself. As a result, it can be enjoyed by both parents and children alike. Though the contents of Kawakami’s Neighborhood are not always suitable for children (“Baseball” comes to mind!), the way the stories are written can be enjoyed by even the very young – just ask my grandson, who has heard many of them (his favourite is “Pigeonitis,” especially when the reader acts it out!)

DB & DK: Kawakami’s writing has an oral nature to it. Is this something you think about when translating her work?

TG: I always try to keep my ear attuned to the sound of both the original and the translation. At the beginning of the process the original dominates; by the end, I am far more concerned with the flow of the English. I have translated other works by Kawakami – at present, I am working on the short story collection Dragon’s Palace (『竜宮』), and I absolutely love her novel 『センセイの鞄』 [translated into English as The Briefcase/Strange Weather in Tokyo by Allison Markin Powell] – so I know that her rhythms vary from work to work. Yet all bear witness to her keen oral sense, one reason why I love her writing so much.

At the same time, though, that very “orality” can present problems for the translator. Kawakami is a master of onomatopoeia (擬声語), one of the Japanese language most striking attributes. Now we have countless examples of the same sort of thing in English – the rain goes “pitter patter”, for example, while words like “rumble” and “grumble” convey meaning through sound – but it is challenging as a translator to try and link the two sides. One benefit I have received by working on Kawakami’s prose, in fact, is my own heightened awareness of the sounds which are embedded in the English language. (Once again, I have been aided by my grandson, who loves playing with the sounds of the new words he is learning.)

DB & DK: Could you walk us through the first line of “Rivals”?

TG: There are other problems which, like Onomatopoeia, are difficult, sometimes impossible, to solve. For example, the first line of “Rivals” goes like this. [羊子さんと、そのお向かいに住む妖子さんは、ライバルだ。] Here the problem is how to distinguish between the two Yokos. In Japanese, of course, the difference is in the kanji with which they are written. If the translator were to choose to involve the meaning of those kanji, then 羊子 would become ‘sheep girl’ or something like that, while 妖子 would become “witch girl”. Sheepish Yoko and Witchy Yoko? Does the original support that kind of reading? I doubt it. So, I simply made the distinction, “Yoko One” and “Yoko Two.” A related challenge arises when teaching Kawabata Yasunari’s classic novel, Snow Country (『雪国』), translated by Edward Seidensticker, where the three main characters are named Shimamura 島村, Yoko 葉子, and Komako駒子. Here the meaning of the kanji is very relevant—Shimamura is an isolated man, an island unto himself; Yoko can be identified with the plant world, where death suggests a rebirth in the spring; while Komako is most definitely connected to the animal world of youthful purity and vigor followed by aging and culminating in a final death.

I can touch upon these kinds of associations in my lectures, but how should I deal with them in my translations? One way would be through the use of footnotes. Depending on where the translation is being published, this can work. In fact, it is a common feature of translations that accompany academic research, whether in academic journals or MA and PhD theses. The other option is to embed discussions of language and translation problems in a Translator’s Note, a strategy that I employed in my recent publication of Shiga Naoya’s Reconciliation (『和解』), where, in a 7-page “Note,” I drew the reader’s attention to the way the concept of “ki” (気) operates in the novella (Canongate Books, 2020). Generally speaking, however, literary publishers and translators dislike the effect of footnotes in a literary, non-academic translation. Our hope is that the reader will become immersed in the reading experience, and not have his or her reading interrupted with extraneous detail, no matter how important we think it is.

DB & DK: In “Rivals,” when a god (kamisama) is mentioned, you use a lowercase “g.” What are your thoughts about that decision?

TG: I have been teaching about Japan for over 40 years, and I can say that, without a doubt, one of the biggest challenges I have faced is getting students to understand the way Japanese religion merges several worldviews into one: the simple fact that most Japanese have a Shinto wedding and a Buddhist funeral, for example, takes a lot of explaining! Another complicated issue is the word “god” or 神様 itself. Is the “god” referred to in a Japanese text one of the many kamigami of Shinto tradition, or does it refer to a monotheistic deity, the “God” of the Torah, the Bible and the Koran? It isn’t always clear. In this case, the presence or absence of a capital “G” in one’s translation speaks volumes.

Kawakami’s short story 「神様」, and its sequel, 「神様 2011」, both of which Shibata Motoyuki and I translated for Granta (and which was later included in the collection March Was Made of Yarn), is a good case in point. Kawakami touches on the God/god distinction in the postscript she added to 「神様 2011」. As she explains, the bear god in the story is one of the many who “presided over all aspects of greater nature.” She doesn’t believe in all the gods from the bottom of her heart; “yet . . . when I feel the warm rays of the sun pouring through my window, my immediate reaction is, ‘Aah, the sun god has returned.’ In that sense, I still retain the sensibility of the Japanese of old.”

Not all modern Japanese writers are that clear. Sometimes, a translator must deduce whether or not the ‘G’ in a particular work should be capitalized by examining the context and, possibly, the world view of a particular writer.

DB & DK: In “The Office,” how did you approach Oniisan’s three set phrases?

TG: Another often insoluble translation problem occurs when the Japanese being used is nonstandard. How should one handle the language of Nakagami Kenji(中上健次) and Nosaka Akiyuki(野坂昭如), for example, two great novelists who wrote much of their work in the dialect(方言) of their birthplaces? Sadly, there is not much a translator can do in this situation. Dialects don’t travel well – they are specific to certain times and locations. If one were to borrow from William Faulkner to create ‘southern American’ speech patterns for Nakagami, or from Cockney English to add flavor to Nosaka’s stories the results would be misleading, even ridiculous.

I thought of this conundrum when I was translating Kawakami’s story, “The Office,” which features an almost nonverbal, seemingly autistic young man whose pencil and crayon sketches attract wide attention. He has three pat phrases, ハンコおしますか; ケッサイおねがいします;and きょうはよくふりますね. Why these three phrases in particular? We can’t be sure, but it seems he has an imaginative world centred around his “office” in the park. I therefore translated them in a way consistent with the exchanges one normally hears in an office setting: “Shall I sign here?”; “Final balance, please”; and “It’s raining hard today.” This was pretty straightforward, the only substitution being “sign” for “hanko,” since few non-Japanese know what a hanko, or personal seal, is or what it is used for.


Ted Goossen teaches Japanese literature and film at York University in Toronto. He is the general editor of The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories and has published translations of stories and essays by Hiromi Kawakami, Yōko Ogawa, and Sachiko Kishimoto, among others. He translated Haruki Murakami’s Wind/Pinball and The Strange Library, and co-translated (with Philip Gabriel) Men Without Women and Killing Commendatore. His translations of Hiromi Kawakami’s People from My Neighbourhood (Granta) and Naoya Shiga’s Reconciliation (Canongate) were published in 2020.

David Boyd is Assistant Professor of Japanese at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He has translated fiction by Hiroko Oyamada and Mieko Kawakami, among others. His translation of Hideo Furukawa’s Slow Boat won the 2017/2018 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission (JUSFC) Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature. 

David Karashima is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University. He has translated the works of a range of contemporary Japanese writers including Hitomi Kanehara, Shinji Ishii and Hisaki Matsuura. His nonfiction book Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami was published by Soft Skull Press in 2020.